In the hour after I heard the news, I experienced the full spectrum of typical reactions to a physician suicide.
One end of the spectrum came from the attending in a clinic, who when asked if the residents could go home and mourn their friend who just committed suicide, proceeded to tell me a story of how when her grandpa died before a final exam in medical school. She decided to honor his death by honoring her exam and told me how we need to learn how to be strong and continue learning and taking care of patients. She wanted us to talk about this event, and how we were at fault for not recognizing that our co-resident was having trouble and timely intervening before she tragically committed suicide. She said “we” a lot, but I don’t think she ever realized what I wanted.
All I wanted was to go home to a quiet place where I could take a moment and mourn the sweet girl with a lilt of childish speech pattern in her voice. She was supposed to be in endocrine clinic with me that morning, and we had wondered if she was sick. Clinic was uneventful, but on entering our noon conference, I was shocked by the tragic news. Earlier that day she jumped off the apartment building next to mine and committed suicide. I was stunned, how could this girl, who seemed so sweet, do something so drastic? How could we all, who pride ourselves on being a close-knit group of work family, have missed the warning signs leading up to this tragic event?
The other side of the spectrum came from the other attending, much younger and incredibly supportive and sympathetic. He realized just by looking at us that we did not need to be in an overstaffed clinic that day, and let us go mourn our friend.
It does not matter how close or far away you were from this girl, we all felt some degree of heartbreak at the news. My heart breaks at the thought of her close friends, and how they must be processing this news. Of how her family is being notified that their little girl is dead. We are all broken and have smoldering memories, and a whisper of her voice emblazoned on our hearts.
While I know there are people in my class that do not have time to mourn her, we must find or make time to be in a quiet place, alone, to reflect on our experience with her. To retune our hearts toward each other in this tragedy. To realize it is not holding raisins in our hands as part of wellness curriculum that keeps us together, but rather support and willingness to be open to your colleagues.
As I walked home, I saw the roof of the building where this event happened, saw in my imagination her accelerating body falling from the roof. What went through her head? Did she regret her decision in the seconds it took her to plummet to her death?
I look at how burned out my wife and I have been over the past several months. How we both have been stressed out over work schedules, unsupportive colleagues, and malignant environments. Why have I not plummeted long before this tragedy?
I can only say that without the close support of friends, we are all falling quickly to the ground. No psychologist talk or administrative meeting will reverse that fall, only the willingness to bear our hearts to each other, to be true friends.
When describing our residency program to others, I always quickly point out how close we are, how we all feel like family. For better or worse, we are all in this together. There will always be that co-worker you can’t stand, the attending that annoys the hell out of you, and your close group of friends that you go drinking with to the wee hours of the morning on that one precious weekend off.
In the bustle of the city, surrounded by sirens, thousands of people streaming around us, endless pages from nurses demanding our attention, let us not forget why we started on this journey.
Let us hold dear the memory of the support we were able to provide our critically ill patients and their families, how we were able to advocate for the terminally ill to have some dignity in their last days. The brief glimpses of hope and fulfillment should pave our way through the rough rotations, the lost sleep, and the stress of everything in our short time here.
I will find time to mourn, I will wake up tomorrow, and I will take care of my patients once again. This tragedy has not dissuaded me or changed my outlook on anything in regards to my current path. It has retuned my heart and eyes towards my colleagues, toward my wife, and how we can support each other.
No amount of meetings or wellness lectures can prevent one of us from dying, but maybe when that person shows signs of faltering, we can be quick to help, quick to listen, and quick to support.
I know that while her body suddenly stopped, her memory and spirit did not. It will continue to live on in her family and us. I will not honor her memory through dedication to medicine; I will honor her by being more human and less like a doctor.
The author is an anonymous medical resident.
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